The federal Child and Adult Care Food Program reimburses child care providers for serving up nutritious foods to children in their care. It serves more than 4.2 million U.S. children each day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But a new University of Illinois study finds the program may be inequitable for rural child care providers.
The program provides different levels of reimbursement, based on certain eligibility requirements. For example, providers can receive higher reimbursement rates based on their own low income, or by living in a region where at least half of the children are low-income.
If those requirements aren’t met, providers can qualify for the higher level of funding by documenting the income levels of the families they serve.
The new study finds that 92% of child care providers in Chicago receive the maximum reimbursement rate, compared to only 73% of providers in central Illinois.
Co-author Brenda Koester, assistant director of the Family Resiliency Center on U of I’s Urbana campus, said administrative hurdles may be to blame for the disparity between rural and urban child care providers.
Since poverty tends to be more concentrated in cities, the eligibility requirements for higher reimbursements can be more easily met, Koester said.
But in rural areas, poverty tends to be more isolated. Documenting the income levels of individual clients can be burdensome and may present additional barriers to providers who may in fact be eligible for greater financial assistance, she said.
Those eligibility rules “were put in place with good intentions of making sure that we’re being careful with the fiscal federal dollars that we’re making available for this program.” Koester said. “But there’s always a balance between that fiduciary responsibility and trying to make a program as accessible as possible.”
Prior research has shown health benefits for children who receive food through the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
A 2013 national study found children who receive food through the program drink more milk, eat more vegetables and are more likely to be a healthy weight.
Koester said she hopes the new study will lead policymakers and those who oversee the food program to discuss: “What are some other ways that we might be able to increase access, particularly for providers and children in rural areas?”